One year later, Toronto’s Syrian refugees face financial uncertainty

One year later, Toronto’s Syrian refugees face financial uncertainty

Islam, Sarah, Iman, Khaled and Nour Lazakani, photographed at their home in Scarborough. Photograph by Brittany Carmichael

More than 38,000 Syrians have arrived in Canada since Justin Trudeau’s Liberals assumed control of the federal government in November 2015, and most of them came with the understanding that they’d be vouchsafed one year of financial support. Those who had been sponsored by the Canadian federal government would be getting that support from Canadian taxpayers. Meanwhile, privately sponsored refugees would have their transition periods bankrolled by the non-government groups and individuals that helped them come to Canada in the first place.

Coming to Canada

For the earliest arrivals, that year of financial support is now over, leaving some of them at a loss as to what to do next. In many cases, Syrian families are still learning English and trying to find employment, making the prospect of surviving without help a daunting one. While privately sponsored refugees have relatively strong social networks to help them out beyond the first 12 months, many government-sponsored Syrians will need to be more resourceful.

We spoke to a few Syrian families whose one-year deadlines are imminent. Here, translated from Arabic, is what they told us.

The Lazakani family

Khaled, 45; Iman, 40; Sarah, 19; Mohamed, 17; Nour, 15 and Islam, 13
Government sponsored. Arrived in Canada on January 6, 2016

Before the war, the Lazakanis led a peaceful life in the town of Idlib, an hour’s drive north of Aleppo, where Khaled worked as a pharmacist and a health committee coordinator with the Red Crescent. His wife, Iman, was a beautician.

After fighting broke out in 2011, Khaled volunteered with ambulances, helping the wounded on both sides. But when volunteers started getting harassed by the Assad regime and the rebels alike, it became too dangerous to remain in the country. “We were getting shot at by snipers. A doctor I knew got killed by a bullet as long as my finger,” Khaled says.

The Lazakanis spent 2012 moving from Turkey to Egypt and eventually back to Syria via Jordan. After briefly living in the relative safety of Damascus, they moved to Lebanon in 2013, where they immediately registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It took two years before they were even interviewed by a Canadian embassy official. “When they asked us where we preferred to go to, I said I wanted a country that accepts me for who I am,” Khaled says.

Coming to Toronto

More than six months later, they got a phone call telling them they were booked on a flight to Canada leaving from Beirut in two days. Like many government-sponsored refugees, they had just hours to settle their affairs and prepare for the trip. They arrived in Toronto on January 6 and spent the next 40 days at the Toronto Plaza Hotel, near Jane and Wilson, with countless other government-sponsored refugees. “It felt like 40 years,” Iman says.

The living situation

They now live in a three-bedroom townhouse in Scarborough. Space is tight, and the bureaucracy involved in getting their basic needs met has been stifling. “Canada seems to like paperwork,” says the Lazakanis’ son Nour. “We could have an entire bookcase for all our applications and forms.”

The kids

Their oldest daughter, Sarah, started attending the University of Toronto this fall. She’s aiming for degrees in health studies and international development. “I want to work for Doctors Without Borders,” she says.

Schools for the younger kids are only short bus rides away. The two sons, Mohamed and Nour, both attend L’Amoreaux Collegiate Institute, while Islam goes to Sir Ernest MacMillan Senior Public School, where she plays soccer, basketball, baseball and ball hockey. “But volleyball is my favourite,” she says. Nour has picked up a part-time job working in the kitchen of a Middle Eastern restaurant, but his aspirations lie elsewhere. He’s taken some photography classes and wants to make a short film about Toronto.

Making a new life

The Canadian lifestyle has taken some getting used to. “Life in Syria was more relaxed,” says Iman. “There’s time for a family to be together. But here you see people running starting from the early morning to catch the subway. I come home tired and I feel like there’s no time to cook a proper meal.”

She and Khaled start their day early, heading out at 7:30 a.m., when they make an hour-long commute downtown for daily classes at an English learning centre.

The family’s favourite spot to explore is along the lakeshore, near Union Station. They’ve made trips to the Aga Khan Museum, which regularly exhibits Syrian art and artifacts. Their home is close to malls, parks and a mosque, but they’re thinking about moving closer to to the city centre, to shorten their daily travel time.

The financial plan

The Lazakanis all speak English reasonably well, and the kids picked up Turkish during their six months in Istanbul. Their language ability gives them an edge over many other newly arrived Syrians, who must first learn to communicate with Canadians before they can contend for decent jobs.

“Right now, I’m at a level where I could get a job, but it would be something basic for us to scrape by and survive—not the level I know I’m capable of,” Iman says. She plans to go to university for sociology or political science once the family’s finances stabilize.

Khaled is hoping his past experience with humanitarian organizations will help him find an entry-level job somewhere. “Work has been hard to find for the more educated people among us. If your qualifications are even accepted, it takes a long time to transfer and verify them,” he says. To help himself find work in his field, Khaled has volunteered as an interpreter for the Arab Community Centre, the Access Alliance and the Afghan Women’s Organization.

Like many Syrian refugees, they’ve encountered innumerable small obstacles to joining the workforce, including difficulty getting driver’s licences. After the Canadian government shuttered Syrian consulates in Ottawa and Montreal, transferring licenses became incredibly difficult. The Lazakanis and many others have been forced to start from scratch, beginning with taking the G1 test.

After their government stipend runs out, the Lazakanis will still receive $1,600 in monthly child benefits. When Mohamed turns 18 in April, that total will be less. To make up the difference, they, like many other government-sponsored refugees who are still acclimating to Canada, could go on social assistance. “The word ‘welfare’ alone terrifies me,” Khaled says. “We Syrians are a hard-working people. We don’t want to be a burden on society.”

Siham and Banoudi Dahi, photographed at their home in Parkdale. Photograph by Kayla Rocca
The Dahi family

Privately sponsored. Arrived in Canada on January 9, 2016
Banoudi, 76 and Siham, 65

Banoudi Dahi is a jack-of-all-trades who once worked throughout Europe as an importer of elevators and elevator parts. Later, he did a three-year stint as a baker in Boston, though he had only a rudimentary knowledge of English.

When he and and Siham, his wife, found out they were coming to Canada last winter, they were ecstatic. The retired couple had fled persistent fighting near their home in the outskirts of Aleppo in 2014 and were eking out a meagre existence in the small town of Brummana, Lebanon. That all ended when their eldest son, Khaled, a Canadian resident for the past 10 years who now lives in Toronto, found a way to reunite with his parents.

Coming to Toronto

Khaled took care of everything. “We were not worried or scared before we arrived,” Banoudi says. “The presence of our son gave us the secure knowledge we were going from our home back in Syria to our new home here.”

Khaled, who goes by Kevin, found a sponsorship agreement holder, the Roman Catholic Church, which was all the more enthusiastic about helping his parents because they’re part of Syria’s Christian minority. Khaled handled his parents’ application. He was there to pick them up in Montreal, where they landed on January 9.

The living situation

Banoudi and Siham spent their first month living with their son, then set about finding their own place. Their current apartment, a one-bedroom in Parkdale, is sparse but well kept. Some of the furniture came from a Canadian friend who offered her basement apartment to the couple rent-free for two months.

The Dahis’ apartment in Parkdale. Photograph by Kayla Rocca
Making a new life

The Dahis are now settled into a relaxed routine. In the summer, they went for regular walks along the Lake Ontario shoreline. They take English classes five days a week at the Parkdale Intercultural Association. Banoudi tries to attend as often as possible, but health problems sometimes get in the way.

Siham knits and crochets. Lately she has been making woolen ornaments. Banoudi, still an entrepreneur at heart, is on the lookout for a shop interested in selling knitwear made by a Syrian newcomer.

The financial plan

“We don’t need much,” says Siham. The Dahis plan to apply for social assistance once their year of private sponsorship runs out. They rely on Khaled to take care of rent and basic day-to-day needs.

The kids

Khaled sells his own brand of Arak, an anise-flavoured spirit popular in Lebanon and Syria, and he has plans to distribute it throughout Canada. The Dahis’ other son, Farhan, has a law degree and lives in Bordeaux.

Their daughter, Zekiah, spent seven years in Germany pursuing a PhD in environmental engineering. She had every opportunity to get residency there with her husband and three children, but wanted to repay a debt to the country that educated her. She now works as a university professor in Homs, about 200 kilometres south of Aleppo. Banoudi and Siham have been trying to convince her to join them in Canada, like their other daughter, Majd, who goes by Gloria. Her refugee application was privately sponsored by Khaled. She arrived with her husband and two children in mid-October and now lives a few minutes’ walk away from her parents.

With the one year anniversary of their arrival just days away, the Dahis are excited to get on with their lives—but their desires are modest. “We don’t have any dreams,” says Siham. “We just want to live and enjoy each day.”

Ghazala and Mayzar Al Mohamed, photographed at their home in Mississauga. Photograph by Kayla Rocca
The Al Mohamed family

Government sponsored. Arrived in Canada on January 29, 2016
Mayzar, 40; Ghazala, 30; Faisal, 14; Zakwan, 12; Bayan, 5; Fatima, 3 and Alat, 1

When the Syrian civil war arrived in Aleppo in 2012, the Al Mohameds decided it was time to leave their home in the countryside nearby, where Mayzar worked for the government’s agricultural department. The family spent three years in the town of Zahlé, Lebanon, where they started the application process for Canadian government sponsorship. After arriving in Canada, they passed their first few months in Toronto hotels before moving to a two-bedroom Mississauga apartment in May.

Making a new life

“We are in a dilemma,” says Mayzar. “If I stop going to English school to get work, I’m never going to learn the language. But I need to speak English to get a job. We can’t figure out a balance.”

Mayzar and his wife, Ghazala, get a combined $1,600 in monthly support from the government, a sum they’ve been using to pay rent and hydro. In a month, when the refugee support money stops flowing, the $3,000 they will continue to receive in child benefits every month will have to take care of all their expenses until Mayzar gets a job. Ghazala is pregnant, meaning another mouth to feed is on the way. “Currently, I’m not thinking about working,” she says. “The children keep me busy. They’re my work.”

The living situation

The family lives in a two-bedroom apartment in a quiet neighbourhood a 15-minute drive south of Pearson International Airport. Many Syrian refugees have settled in the area. They’re attracted by the sizeable Arab community and the relatively cheap rent.

The boys, Faisal and Zakwan, share one bedroom, while the three girls, Bayan, Fatima and Alat, share the second with their parents. The home is sparsely decorated, an exception being two poppies pinned on the living room curtains. The Al Mohameds placed them there out of respect this past Remembrance Day. “Canadians are a good people,” Mayzar says. “We want to be happy with them, but mourn their losses as well.”

The apartment’s bedrooms are small, and the balcony is boarded up and under repair, but the Al Mohameds aren’t complaining. Ghazala remembers the month she spent alone with the children in Syria when Mayzar went ahead of them to find a job and home in Lebanon. “I was dying of terror,” she says. “The days and nights seemed to never end.”

The Al Mohamed family’s apartment in Mississauga. Photograph by Kayla Rocca
The kids

The Al Mohameds’ daughters aren’t yet school-aged, but their sons started attending middle school in the spring and are thriving. They can already converse in basic English, and they frequently interpret for their parents, who are having trouble picking up the language. “When I first arrived here, I didn’t even know how to say good morning,” says Mayzar.

Zakwan, Fatima, Bayan, Alat and Faisal Al Mohamed. Photograph by Kayla Rocca
The financial plan

Mayzar and Ghazala go to a local English language school every weekday, though Mayzar has skipped a few days to search for jobs at local bakeries and work a few one-off gigs he gets from Syrian friends. “My desire is a job where I have a lot of contact with people, so I can learn English quickly,” he says.

The Al Mohameds feel like they’re in a race against time. “I thank the government, and especially Justin Trudeau, from all my heart,” Mayzar says. “They gave us something incredible and we can’t ask them for anything more. But I think they should support Syrian newcomers financially for an additional year if they want to solve this problem many of us are facing.”

“The government expected people to have learned English and done all the things they need to get a job in 12 months,” he added. “But it isn’t easy.”